The quiet man whom baseball writer Robert Creamer once described as "probably the most misunderstood and least appreciated of American sports heroes" is not without honor in his own city. Roger Maris, the Fargoan who in 1961 shook the baseball world by breaking Babe Ruth's single-season home run record, has not been admitted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Instead, he enjoys a more populist sort of apotheosis - the shrine in his hometown shopping mall.
The Roger Maris Museum has occupied a nook in the West Acres Shopping Center since 1984, when co-founders Jim McLaughlin and Bob Smith assembled a display from a U-Haul full of Maris memorabilia they had driven up from the slugger's home in Gainesville, Florida. McLaughlin, an affable old baseball enthusiast who first met Maris in Kansas City in '59, recalls that the famously reticent Roger had agreed to the proposed museum on three conditions - that it was in his hometown, that it was in a spot where a lot of folks could see it, and that it was free. The mall was satisfactory on all counts, and his legacy has been celebrated there ever since.
McLaughlin admits the museum was little more than a glorified high school trophy case in its first incarnation, but a year ago it was extensively renovated, and now it looks splendid. (American Legion Post 2 sponsored the original endeavor; while West Acres paid for last year's facelift.) The snappy, well-lit display cases extend along a wall between Pet Center and Spencer Gifts. Across the way is Nails Pro, where on a Saturday afternoon two young women seated and with their backs turned, a blonde and a brunette, are having their nails worked on by men in white surgical masks. Cellular One abuts Nails Pro, and Radio Shack, Stride Rite (a shoe store), and Walgreens are visible farther down, in the mall's main corridor.
It's a busy summer day, and a stream of shoppers glides past. Nearly everyone turns to give the exhibit at least a passing glance, and few linger for a closer look. These lingerers are treated to the old sweet story, told roughly from left to right as one faces the display, of The Local Boy Made Good (Maris was born in Hibbing, Minnesota, but spent his formative years in Fargo). Here on the left is the hero in his youth, #37 on the Fargo Shanley High School football team - still a face in the crowd at this point, though the trademark blond crew cut and handsome, angular features are easy to spot.
A brief stroll to the right takes us to the happy ending of the tale - Roger the celebrity, hobnobbing with the presidents. The picture with Kennedy is particularly rich. Handing a ball and pen to the earnest-faced young slugger who has just broken Ruth's record (the Babe belted 60 in 1927; Maris went one better, walloping 61 in '61), JFK laughs, as if it say "Yes, it's me, the President, asking for an autograph!"
Between these bookends of anonymity and renown is a shifting assortment, which is changed semi-annually, of plaques, pictures, and memorabilia that collectively sketch in the life lived - Roger the ballplayer, with a few nods to Maris the man. Here, for instance, is a small white placard bearing the signatures of Roger's first professional team, the 1953 Fargo-Moorhead Twins - then the Class C minor league affiliate of the Cleveland Indians. Maris's name is among them, except it's still spelled "Maras" here; the story goes that he later had it changed to avoid the unfortunate rhyme which might occur to fans of the less reputable sort.
An ashtray on the top shelf of his replicated Yankee Stadium locker serves as subtle reminder of the burden of fame - always a significant part of the Roger Maris story. He smoked to relieve stress; in the 2001 HBO film *61 Barry Pepper, who plays Maris, is rarely without a Camel in his mouth.
On a warmer note, a charming photo entitled "Fathers Day 1968" shows Maris the family man surrounded by his six young children. He was a St. Louis Cardinal then, and in the last year of his career. Roger is missing from the next family photo, made 30 years later; he died in 1985 of lymphatic cancer.
The central shrine, however, is reserved for the special glories of 1961. A series of neat red-white-and-blue pennants, hanging just above the display cases and numbered 1 through 61 (one for each homer in the epochal season, of course) are arranged so that they ascend from either side to the climactic, central 61st. Beneath the tip of this flag, in the middle display case, rests an idealized portrait of the young hero in his Yankee pinstripes. Clean-cut and clear-eyed as a Marine Corps advertisement cadet, he gazes into the distance, his eyes focused on some remote goal. Beneath him, mounted on a slowly rotating cylindrical stand, are commemorative bats and balls - the tools of the trade. The balls are some of the very ones Roger knocked out of American League parks during his run at Ruth. Appropriately soiled and scuffed, they are individually inscribed by hand, in ink, with the date of the given homer, the park it was hit in, and the name of the opposing pitcher.
Beyond these gems, out in the thoroughfare of the mall, stands a replica of the monument to Maris at Yankee Stadium. The text on the back begins "Roger Maris did the unthinkable" and ends "It's no wonder that we call him hero."
McLaughlin made the trip to New York in 1984 for the dedication of the original monument. At the ceremony he met legendary Yankees broadcaster Mel Allen, whom he proceeded to school in prairie decency. When McLaughlin told him about the new museum in the mall, Allen asked, "Where are the policemen?" "We don't need policemen in Fargo," McLaughlin replied. "Where do you put in quarters?" the New Yorker next inquired, whereupon the Dakotan retorted, "We don't do that either; it's free!"
The exhibits lead one down memory lane, but it is the video room that truly takes us to another time and place. Stepping into the recessed alcove, we feel as though we're entering not a 21st-century TV den, but rather the right-field stands of Yankee Stadium on a particular October afternoon in 1961. This effect is partly produced by the seats - a double row of the old-fashioned fold-down variety. Wooden-slatted, blue, and in a picturesquely well-worn state, they simply bleed authenticity. They are, in fact, Maris-era Yankee Stadium originals; curator Mara Pierce, who designed the renovation, acquired them from a devoted fan.
On the rear wall directly behind the seats, and greatly reinforcing the time-warp effect, are cutouts from a blown up black-and-white photo of Stadium fans from the period. It's a different crowd from what you'd see nowadays. Nearly all are male (fewer women went to games back then), and they're much more formally dressed. One distinguished-looking old gent even sports a bow tie. Several wear dark glasses, and cigarettes droop from a few mouths. More important than their individual appearances, though, is the fact that their collective attention is riveted on something happening in the first row: a home run ball - Maris's 61st, we presume - descends toward an outstretched glove.
With this image behind us and the actual tape of Maris hitting his 61st playing on the big-screen TV in front, we sense that we're witnessing the moment firsthand. For a moment we have stepped into the photograph, and the seats beneath us are three-dimensional color extensions of the black-and-white world at our backs.
The video package itself is an engaging documentary about Maris's life and legacy. Arranged into five segments on a DVD ("Fargo to Kansas City," "'61 in 61," etc.), the viewer can choose what he or she wants to see next. Pierce, in assembling the video, asked Major League Baseball to plumb its archives for footage of every available Maris at-bat. The compilation took months, and when finished, MLB presented Pierce with a $30,000 bill. Pierce, however, had only $1,500 left of her budget to spend. This she offered her creditor, with assurances that the video would be used only for free public viewing. Astoundingly, MLB accepted.
The year 1961, it will be remembered, was both a triumph for Maris and an ordeal that literally made his hair fall out. Though he succeeded in surpassing Ruth, he was frowned on by many in the baseball establishment (most notably commissioner Ford Frick, an old friend of the Babe's) as an upstart, the unworthy usurper of Ruth's throne. Frick famously cheapened Maris's new mark by placing an asterisk next to it in the record books, reasoning that, since Roger's 61 had been hit in the expanded new 162-game season, whereas Ruth's 60 had come in the old 154-gamer, the old record technically still stood; the asterisk was finally removed in 1991. Maris also endured threats from fans and the ruthless scrutiny of the New York media. A quote from the Fargoan, inscribed in white letters on the display case glass, sums it up: "As a ballplayer, I would be delighted to do it again. As an individual, I don't think I could possibly go through it again."
The museum in the mall is in a way a fitting fate for Maris. Roger, no stranger to being spurned by baseball's official establishment, has long been lauded in Fargo, which is rightly proud to call him its own. Indeed, there was something quintessentially North Dakotan about the man. If Ruth was The Character, the media icon whose mug and girth have become American symbols, Maris was The Anti-Ruth - uncomfortable in the spotlight, humble, hardworking, a dedicated family man. As if to emphasize the Maris vs. Ruth theme, a chart on the video room wall has the two lined up side by side, like a pair of heavyweights. Beneath the photos - each is in his lefty batting stance are the sluggers' vital statistics, which are comparable save for the difference in heft. Ruth was 251 pounds; Maris, 200. George Herman had a 48-inch waist; Roger's measured 35 1/4.
Bellies aside, the usurper of Ruth's throne now casts a long shadow himself. Maris's record wound up lasting longer than the Babe's did; 61 in '61 stood for 37 years before Mark McGwire finally smashed it with 70 in '98. The mark has now been bested a total of six times, which perhaps lessens its luster. Barry Bonds, with 73 in 2001, is the current record holder.
Strikes and the specter of steroids have tarnished baseball's image in recent years, so a clean-cut figure like Maris becomes all the more attractive in retrospect. "True baseball people will never forget what he did," said McLaughlin.